Kevin Gorman: Steelers counting on Mike Tomlin to be catalyst for second-half surge
Moments before Mike Tomlin’s weekly news conference Tuesday, ESPN’s First Take debated whether the Pittsburgh Steelers coach should be the NFL Coach of the Year.
Only a month ago, the same show wondered whether the Washington Redskins should give Tomlin complete control. And some suggested the Steelers should let him walk, given they started 1-4 and this looked like a lost season.
So take that for what it’s worth.
I can imagine some football fans would have the same reaction to that midseason hot take as Tomlin did to a question about the Steelers’ freefall from having the NFL’s best red-zone offense at 73.5% last season to ranking 28th (38.1%) this year.
“What do you think?” Tomlin said, doubling over with laughter at the podium in one of the season’s lighter moments at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “We’re still writing our story, but you can come to whatever conclusion you want about our lack of productivity in that area. I’m not going to take a whole lot of time outlining that.”
That the Steelers are on a three-game winning streak and back in playoff contention at the midway point after losing Ben Roethlisberger to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2 is a credit to Tomlin, something that should silence his critics.
But we know better.
And so does Tomlin.
That’s why he didn’t spend much time reflecting on the Steelers improving to 4-4 at the midway point of the season after Sunday’s 26-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts: “We are far from where we want to be, but we will take it.”
Tomlin knows it won’t matter much if the Steelers (4-4) don’t win Sunday, when the Los Angeles Rams (5-3) visit Heinz Field, or if they miss the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
“I don’t look at it from a big-picture perspective. I’m just trying to meet the challenges week-in and week-out,” Tomlin said. “At the turn, for a moment after that game, I paused just to take a look at where we were after eight games. But I’m immediately back, into our singular focus, as I expect our football team to be. We have a good team coming in here this week off of a bye.”
The Rams represent a second consecutive game against a five-win opponent, a much stronger measuring stick for the Steelers than their victories over the Cincinnati Bengals (0-8), Miami Dolphins (1-7) and Los Angeles Chargers (4-5) were.
The strength of the Rams, Tomlin insisted, is in the pack. You can’t just focus on stopping Todd Gurley when Jared Goff has Cooper Kupp to keep you honest on third downs. And the defense boasts the NFL’s most dominant player in Pitt alum Aaron Donald and its best cover corner in Jalen Ramsey.
What should have the Steelers concerned about the Rams is the man pulling the strings. Rams coach Sean McVay is an X’s and O’s mastermind who had a bye week to add new wrinkles to his offense and pinpoint the Steelers’ weaknesses on defense.
The 33-year-old McVay was named NFL Coach of the Year in his second season after taking the Rams to Super Bowl LIII. That’s something to which Tomlin can relate, as he was named NFL Coach of the Year after leading the Steelers to the Super Bowl XLIII championship in his second season.
But Tomlin also knows what McVay is bound to discover: Being the hot item in the NFL lasts only as long as you’re on top. McVay’s Rams are in third place in the NFC West after losses to Tampa Bay, Seattle and San Francisco.
The Seahawks and 49ers beat the Steelers, too, so Tomlin has common opponents to study. That’s especially true of the 49ers, as Kyle Shanahan and McVay worked together under Mike Shanahan for the Redskins — Kyle was offensive coordinator, and McVay coached tight ends — and Tomlin said he sees “strong similarities” in their coaching styles.
That’s why Tomlin emphasized the need to minimize running back Gurley and force the down-and-distance to fall into the Steelers’ favor, so McVay doesn’t have Goff pick them apart with play-action passes, misdirection and bootlegs.
After watching how the Colts averaged 4.8 yards per carry in rushing for 139 yards — with journeyman quarterback Brian Hoyer, no less — Tomlin found it “both frustrating but also encouraging” the Steelers won a game in which they failed to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
“To be in a game like that and to secure victory,” Tomlin said, “hopefully, that’s a catalyst for us as we move forward.”
Tomlin sounded more hopeful than optimistic, knowing he has to live with a young quarterback and a banged-up backfield, with a defense that struggles to stop the run but thrives on turnovers, with the red-zone inefficiency and losing coach’s challenges and, most of all, without Big Ben.
The Steelers are far from where they want to be, but they’re still writing their story. More than ever, they are counting on Tomlin to be their catalyst moving forward.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .